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Posts Tagged ‘ian rickson’

I last saw this 1980 play by the late Brian Friel in Sam Mendes’ Donmar Warehouse Theatre production twenty-five years ago. Ian Rickson’s revival in the National’s Olivier Theatre makes a virtue of the bigger space and it works even better on this scale, with a superb design by Rae Smith, beautifully lit by Neil Austin, making great use of the Olivier stage (something that lately hasn’t been said that often!).

We’re in rural Ireland in 1833, in an independent and potentially illegal ‘Hedge School’, giving a classical education to adults in Latin and Irish. The school is run by Hugh and his son Manus. Hugh’s other son Owen is working as a translator for the British army, which is mapping this part of Ireland, renaming places in English. When British army Lieutenant Yolland and Manus’ girlfriend fall for each other, events take a dramatic turn. The disappearance of Yolland incurs the wrath of the British, who threaten to kill animals, evict people and demolish homes. The true purpose of the British forces mission becomes clear.

It all takes place in a school room, with a large green space behind and brooding clouds above providing an atmospheric and evocative picture of rural Ireland. It takes a while before you realise the Irish are speaking Irish (Gaelic) and the British speaking English; at this time English was rarely spoken by the people of Ireland. Ciaran Hinds is great as Hugh, with Seamus O’Hare as Manus and Colin Morgan as Owen both excellent. In a fine supporting cast, Dermot Crowley shines as the erudite, knowledgable but often drunk Jimmy Jack Cassie, who studies Greek and Latin.

This is an excellent revival of a fascinating play, anchored in history, beautifully staged and performed.

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I keep breaking my ‘no more Pinter revivals’ rule, lured by the cast and / or creatives, in this case both, though maybe it’s a subconscious desire to one day understand his plays. This team certainly don’t disappoint, but I’m no further forward on the understanding front.

It’s the play’s 60th anniversary. If you’d told those that attended the eight performances of its premiere production that it would be selling out in the West end today, they’d probably laugh. The audience was in single numbers when it was pulled prematurely. Pinter’s comedy with menace / theatre of the absurd must have baffled then as it still does, with its cocktail of ambiguity, confusion, contradictions and political symbolism. I’m still not convinced even Pinter knew what it was about, or whether it being about anything is the point. Despite the bafflement, it’s still compelling.

Ian Rickson’s staging and the Quay Brothers design are as good as any. Zoe Wanamaker and Peter Wight are perfect as the couple running the seaside boarding house, her rather batty and him a beacon of ordinariness. The part of Stanley, the prime victim, really suits Toby Jones. Goldberg is unlike any other role I’ve seen Stephen Mangham play, so he was a bit of a revelation, doing menacing very well indeed, as does his sidekick Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as McCann. Lulu is a small part but Pearl Mackie acquits herself well.

My plea to producers would be to use creatives and actors I don’t like so that I don’t feel compelled to break my own rules, though rule-breaking can sometimes be rewarding…..

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I’ve had very mixed experiences with the work of American playwright Christopher Shinn, nurtured here by the Royal Court. I loved Then & Now, his last-but-one here at the Court (mind you, it did have a stunning performance by Eddie Redmayne), but felt his last one, Teddy Ferrara, at the Donmar, sank somewhere in mid-Atlantic. Here, there’s a great idea bursting to get out, but it can’t find its way through the snails pace narrative, with a central character who’s a complete arse.

Luke is a young silicone valley billionaire who gets a message from god telling him to follow the violence, so he begins a messianic tour of schools where there have been shootings, campuses where there have been rapes, troubled workplaces and people’s homes. Unsurprisingly, there as many disciples as there are detractors; he’s loved and loathed in equal measure, though the media attention certainly makes an impact. The celebrity circus all becomes too much for him, though, so he returns to his family home until the media gets bored and disappears in search of the next circus. He reconnects with old school flame Kate and eventually gets it together with his assistant Sheila before a rescheduled visit to the Equator Fulfilment Centre, a thinly disguised Amazon, to tell the world his plans for the future.

The first half is achingly slow, though the pace does pick up in the second, but it doesn’t sustain its 2h50m length. Like Teddy Ferrara, its quintessentially American, awash with political correctness, causes of all sorts and celebrity obsession. Although it does come to a conclusion, it doesn’t really go anywhere, and Luke is such an unsympathetic character you just want to shake him and tell him to get a life and do something more productive with his billions.

Ian Rickson’s staging is uncharacteristically dull, as is Ultz non-existent design, and though he does his best with the material, there are a lot of better uses of Ben Wishaw’s extraordinary talent. There’s a fine supporting cast, so its not the Ben Wishaw Show, not that you’d notice from the fan presence. I spent most of the interval deciding if I could be bothered to return. I’m glad I did, as it picked up, though that might have something to do with the large glass of wine I took in with me.

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I’m not sure I’ve seen anything by German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz before. This one, translated by acclaimed Irish writer Conor McPherson, hails from 1975, though it’s a pretty timeless tale, and a rather good play.

Kurt & Martha are about to have their first child. They tally the expenses they are about to incur, insisting as they do that there’ll be no hand-me-downs. Martha works from home making market research calls, earning a pittance, so lorry driver Kurt takes all the overtime he can get, until a secret assignment brings consequences he could not possibly have predicted. It threatens his marriage, he’s wracked with guilt and remorse and he has to make a big choice about whether to keep the secret or not, with potentially dire consequences whatever action he takes. The pressures to do the best for your family are all too real, and the lengths people will go to very believable.

It’s beautifully performed by Laurence Kinlan, who navigates his character’s emotional roller-coaster really well, and Caoilfhionn Dunne, who’s character’s challenge is how to respond to her husband’s dilemma. There’s an atmospheric soundtrack by P J Harvey no less, which I thought added much to the tension, and both Ian Rickson’s direction and Alyson Cummins’ design serve the play well, bringing you into their home and out into the countryside. 

A very thought-provoking piece which is definitely worth catching.

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Playwright Patrick Marber has shot himself in the foot by producing a very dull 50-minute first act. I’ve never seen so many people fail to return after the interval. What followed were two much better acts, but it never really recovered, for those who stayed.

We’re in the world of semi-professional football, in the changing room, so I was rather surprised to find it is a three-hander. There’s the manager Kidd, a bit of a spiv but he appears to have turned the team around. Then there’s the kit man John, a former player who fell on hard times. He’s a bit of a father figure who commands respect and love. Finally, there’s the new player Jordan who shows much promise. Scene-setting and character introductions are about all we get in this first act.

For those that did return, in the second act we see the murkier side of football, where people are on the make, more interested in business and money than sport. To many, the new boy is a commodity rather than a player and we realise the processes of realising value from such commodities are both formal and informal and complex. I’ve thought for ages that business has swallowed up football, but I hadn’t realised that included obscure semi-professional clubs. In the third act it all comes home to roost and John proves to be the only truly honest one, with his principles intact, and a love of the game and the club which overrides everything else. The ending is somewhat melodramatic.

Anthony Ward has created a high-ceilinged uber-realistic dressing room, complete with tacky signs and mud. This is one of Peter Wight’s very best performances, a deep and delicate characerisation of John. I’m a huge fan of Daniel Mays and he’s perfect for the role of the manager, though I felt he overplayed it occasionally. Calvin Demba continues to show the promise he showed in the even more disappointing Wolf at the Door at the Royal Court; let’s hope he gets a better role and play next time.

Seeing Closer at the Donmar last year made me realise what good plays Marber has written. He preceded this with Dealer’s Choice and After Miss Julie and followed it with Don Juan in Soho, but that’s nine years ago now. Perhaps he’s lost his mojo, or perhaps he’s too involved in semi-professional football himself to see the flaws in his own play, but I would have expected a director as good as Ian Rickson to have addressed that. There’s a much better, shorter, more evenly balanced play in here crying to get out. A disappointment.

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The 18 year revival rule applies again as Jez Butterworth’s first play gets a high profile West End outing. I’d decided not to go, given it cost more than five times the inflation-adjusted 1995 price, but I’m dreadfully weak-willed and I finally succumbed to the temptation of seeing a new generation of actors tackle these roles. So my review is of a performance ten weeks into the run.

Set in 50’s Soho amongst small-time gangsters, Mojo features club manager Mickey, his staff Skinny, Potts & Sweets, the owner’s son Baby and rock & roll prodigy Silver Johnny. There’s murder offstage which impacts them all, but we’re viewing their reactions and relationships in the back-room and an empty club.

The strength of the piece is not in the story, but in the world Butterworth creates, his characterisations and the rich expletive-strewn dialogue which is like verbal gunfire. It’s got great energy, edginess and dark humour, though it owes a lot to early Pinter (the menacing late 50’s Birthday Party & Caretaker period). Somewhat appropriately, it’s playing in the Harold Pinter theatre.

The chief reason for seeing it is that it provides a showcase for five leading male actors and these five relish every moment. Potts & Sweets are really a double-act and Daniel Mays and Rupert Grint have great chemistry, with slick and speedy delivery of the lines. There’s a sense of Grint apprenticed to Mays in both the characters and the actors. The role is perfect for Mays’ style and Grint’s professional debut is hugely impressive. In 1995, these roles were played by Andy Serkis and Matt Bardock respectively.

Ben Wishaw continues to impress and here effectively extends his range as Baby (Tom Hollander in 1995). Colin Morgan does more acting as Skinny, maybe a touch too much, but I still liked his highly strung take on Skinny (Aiden Gillen in 1995). Given he’s now a bit too well known as Downton’s Bates, Brendan Coyle still manages to convince as Mickey (David Westhead in 1995). Tom Rhys Harries is cool and charismatic in the smaller role of Silver Johnny. It’s the same director / design team (Ian Rickson & Ultz) and it’s staged with great tension and period style.

It is good to see these fine (mostly) young actors take on the sort of meaty ‘contemporary’ roles that don’t come around that often, so I will reluctantly accept that it was good to relent – and my admiration for producer Sonia Friedman continues to increase; it can’t be that easy to put such a bankable cast together for five months.

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The Royal Court has taken a lot of risks with its decisions surrounding this play, including the risk that they generate so much hype they are setting the audience up for a disappointment (more risk evaluation later!). After giving us Jerusalem, in my view one of the greatest plays in decades, playwright Jez Butterworth is a hot property. Though at least four good plays preceded Jerusalem, this was inevitably going to be the theatrical equivalent of ‘the difficult second album’.

Whether he set out to produce the antidote or not I don’t know, but he has. Where Jerusalem was epic, this is intimate. Where Jerusalem was in your face, brash and loud; this is subtle, gentle and almost trance-like. The reason for staging it in a space so small that only just over 3000 people will see it was apparently ‘artistic reasons’. Though it does clearly benefit from the intimacy, I’m not convinced it benefits so much as to deprive another 10,000 from seeing it (the number it would have played to with the same length of run in the main house).

Designer Ultz has delivered one of his extraordinarily immersive sets which put you right there in the situation at the moment; this time a cabin by a river. Our nameless main character, obsessed with fishing, is there at his favourite time – the one night of the year with no moon. There is a woman with him and as the play unfolds we have more than one woman. He appears to be giving different women the same experience at different times. Or is he? If the script hadn’t specified ‘The Other Woman’ I might have thought it was the same woman at different times or different outcomes with the same woman or….. It’s a bit obtuse.

Director Ian Rickson has taken this material and created something highly atmospheric and mysterious. It’s hypnotic and compelling, I don’t really understand it, but I enjoyed the ride. Amongst many such moments, The Man preparing a fish for dinner was mesmerizing. Moments later, you could smell it as it came out of the oven and onto the dinner table. There are outstanding performances from Dominic West, Miranda Raison and Laura Donnelly and Charles Balfour’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s sound contribute much to casting the spell.

The risk of over-hype may have paid off, but I don’t think the risk of day-seats-only has. The Royal Court is a publicly funded theatre and you can’t expect the taxpayers that fund it to block out a month in their diaries just in case they win the lottery that getting a ticket was. You either queued outside (if you’re nearby and don’t have work to do to pay the tax that funds the theatre) or participated in an online game of who-clicks-first at precisely 9am. This is no way to distribute tickets to a publicly funded show. It’s unfair on people who work and who don’t live nearby and it has brought the touts to Sloane Square. It has pissed off loyal ‘Friends’ like me and if it transfers to the West End with tickets at 2.5 times the price and fat royalty cheques to the writer and director, don’t go anywhere near the fan! Dominic Cooke has hardly put a foot wrong in his all-too-short tenure as AD of the Court, but this is one big mistake.

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